The federal economic stimulus program is turning out to be a headache and a windfall for the Gilbert Town Council as it tries to decide whether to build a new fire station using a $3 million grant.
The council has been trying to figure out what to do with the grant since it was awarded last October. The group was hoping to reach a conclusion during a meeting Tuesday night.
Building Fire Station 10 near McQueen and Guadalupe roads would lower response times to the northwest part of town, an area Mesa and Chandler fire crews frequently end up responding to under an automatic aid agreement.
But doing so could render Fire Station 7, on Cooper Road north of Elliot Road, obsolete because the two stations would be located so close together.
Station 7 is Gilbert's busiest station and needs to be remodeled and expanded anyway, assistant fire chief Jim Jobusch said. His comments spurred the town to begin planning to relocate the station several years ago.
"The question becomes, by spending a couple million more dollars, could we better serve the community (with a new station)," he said.
Beyond that, the grant as awarded last October won't cover the entire cost of building the station, though the town's estimate of additional costs dropped, from $1 million to about $550,000.
Town Councilman Steve Urie took note of the shifting estimates during a council meeting Saturday. "We started out at $7.3 million, then it went down to $3 million, and now we're at $600,000. From where I'm standing, it's looking a whole lot better than it was," he said.
The town's estimate does not include a requirement for an environmental and historical preservation evaluation of the site, which could run $20,000. The added cost was revealed earlier this month.
"It seems like it's rough going for the people who receive these grants," Jobusch said during Saturday's meetings. He said meeting federal regulations proves to be more difficult than expected for what were thought to be "shovel-ready" projects.
Gilbert began design and pre-construction work on Fire Station 10 in early 2008, but halted it by April of that year due to worsening economic conditions.
Due to the locations of the current stations, Jobusch said, there are some parts of northwest Gilbert, including sections of the Islands community, that have average response times of more than six minutes. It's a situation the new fire station is intended to remedy. The town's goal is to meet the national standard of a four-minute response time throughout the community.
The cities Gilbert relies on to help respond to calls in the northwest part of town are facing their own financial woes, which could make it more difficult for them to respond under the automatic aid agreement.
"They may not be able to physically do it anymore," Jobusch said.
The Gilbert Fire Department could be facing some staffing cuts of its own, depending on the fate of a quarter-cent sales tax increase on the May 18 ballot, along with any other cost-cutting measures the town comes up with. When departments were asked last fall how they would implement a theoretical 15 percent cut to close the budget gap, the fire department said it would lose 29 employees.
Officials believe they have until sometime in May to decide what to do with the grant, and they will be able to complete the new station by the federal program's September2011 deadline.
Jobusch said if work on Station 10 moves ahead, Station 7 wouldn't have to be moved immediately, and the council could choose not to relocate it at all.